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Stolen Identity. How the Bolsheviks went from Ukrainianization to de-Ukrainianization

The war in Ukraine, which began under the pretext of «denazification and demilitarization,» has in reality turned into an attempt to «de-Ukrainianize» the country.The Kremlin is not quite hiding this fact: Putin has repeatedly said in recent days that Ukraine is an artificially created state that has no history of its own, and Dmitry Medvedev has even declared the need to combat «Ukrainianism», which is «one big fake». It's not the first attempt to destroy Ukraine's national culture: in the late 1920s, Stalin curtailed the Bolsheviks' forced «Ukrainization,» eliminated national Ukrainian figures and imposed a unified totalitarian order in Soviet Ukraine, accompanied by a famine.

  • Ukrainianization

  • Stalin halts Ukrainianization

  • De-Ukrainianization

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In the Russian Empire the national identity of Ukrainians, like that of many other peoples, was suppressed, so the overthrow of the monarchy opened up new opportunities for national self-determination. One of the active proponents of Ukrainianization was Alexander Shumsky, a member of the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Party since 1908. He graduated from the history department of the A. L. Shanyavsky Moscow City People's University and during the civil war was one of the left-wing leaders of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries and a member of the Central Committee of the party of Borotbists. As a member of that party he joined the Communist Party of Ukraine in 1920 and became a member of its Politburo as well as Commissar of Education of Ukraine. In the fall of 1920, the first step towards Ukrainianization was the requirement to study the Ukrainian language in educational establishments and schools for non-Ukrainian language pedagogues. At that time, it was planned to publish at least one Ukrainian-language newspaper and to create evening schools for teaching the Ukrainian language to Soviet officials in all provincial cities of Ukraine. In May 1921, the Institute of Ukrainian Scientific Language was established.

The problem was that in the Russian Empire the Ukrainian language was effectively banned and failed to develop as a language of science and state building. There were no generally accepted norms for the Ukrainian literary language. At the same time, the Ukrainian language had been freely developing in Eastern Galicia, which was a part of Austria. The Ukrainian literary language was quite developed there, but it was based on Western Ukrainian dialects, while the Ukrainian population of the Russian Empire spoke different dialects. This created certain difficulties with mastering the Ukrainian literary language in Soviet Ukraine. However, the proponents of Ukrainianization sought to distance Ukrainian as much as possible from Russian in order to assert its independence and to remove the Russian-Ukrainian surzhik (mixed language), widespread in Eastern Ukraine, from circulation.

Another promoter of Ukrainianization was the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy (Nikolai G. Fitilyov), the son of a Russian and a Ukrainian, who was considered the founder of the new Ukrainian prose. In his program article «Away from Moscow!» he wrote that «Ukrainian poetry must escape from Russian literature, from its style, as soon as possible» just to separate the Ukrainian language from Russian, to assert its independence. After all, in tsarist times Ukrainian (Little Russian) was actually considered a dialect of Russian. Originally, the basis of the literary language in Soviet Ukraine was largely borrowed from the Ukrainian language of Eastern Galicia, although it was then a part of Poland. Here, as in the entire Ukrainianization policy, was a certain nod towards foreign policy. There were many emigrants from Eastern Galicia and Volyn in the USSR whose native lands were part of the Polish state. They formed the Communist Party of Western Ukraine, which fought for the separation of the western Ukrainian lands from Poland.

Ukrainianization in Soviet Ukraine was supposed to show that all conditions for the development of the Ukrainian language and culture were met there, unlike in Poland and Romania. In Romania, a significant Ukrainian minority existed in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina.

It was the Ukrainians that the Soviet leadership wagered on during the failed Tatarbunar uprising in Bessarabia in 1924. The Ukrainians of Eastern Galicia and Volyn were expected to rise up in order to fight against Poland in the first half of the 1920s, during the so-called «active operations» conducted by the Red Army on Polish territory, when the Red Army troops disguised as insurgents or dressed in Polish military uniform attacked Polish soldiers and police as well as state institutions. But even more important was the internal political aspect. The Bolsheviks in Ukraine, as Stalin acknowledged in a letter to Kaganovich, were not widely supported by the population, and there were few local Bolsheviks. By means of «Ukrainianization» the Soviet government was supposed to win the support of the peasant masses. Ukrainian-speaking peasants were now able to receive education in their native language and successfully compete with Russian-speaking city residents for positions in the civil service.

Even more important was the fact that the representatives of the left wing of the Ukrainian socialist parties, including Shumsky, who eventually supported the Bolsheviks during the civil war, did so only on the condition that all opportunities for the development of the Ukrainian language and culture would be created. And for the time being, Moscow depended on the support of these people and had to fulfill their demands, because it was impossible to rule Ukraine without relying on local cadres.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of Ukrainianization, in 1920-1922, the total number of Ukrainian newspapers in Ukraine decreased from 87 to 30. The number of Russian newspapers also decreased - from 266 to 102, but they retained their dominant role. The smaller number of newspapers was due to the Bolsheviks' struggle with the remnants of freedom of the press. But in 1923 the number of Ukrainian newspapers increased to 36, and the number of Russian newspapers decreased to 95. And in 1928 already 69% of newspapers and 71% of magazines were published in Ukrainian. In 1923 decrees were issued requiring government officials to learn the Ukrainian language. Already in 1926, Ukrainians accounted for 54% of all government officials in Ukraine. Since there was a shortage of Ukrainian staff, emigrants were allowed to return and work for the People's Commissariat of Education on condition that they recognize Soviet power, including the former chairman of the Central Rada, historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky.

On July 6, 1927 the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR approved a resolution «On Ensuring the Equality of Languages and Promoting Ukrainian Culture», which introduced the Russian and Ukrainian languages and Ukrainian studies as compulsory disciplines in educational institutions. In 1938 the Ukrainian language was wholly or partially used in 18,101 schools out of 21,656. There was also Ukrainianization of the Red Army within Ukraine. In 1923 in Kharkiv, which was then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, a School of Chervonniye Starshiny was established with instruction in the Ukrainian language. It trained Red Army commanders for Red Army units stationed in Ukraine.

In the political sphere, Ukrainianization had its limits. At the time of its implementation, as well as later on, up to 1953, not a single ethnic Ukrainian was at the head of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Only in 1953, when, after Stalin's death, Lavrentiy Beria attempted to relaunch Ukrainianization and similar campaigns in other Soviet republics, did a Ukrainian, Alexey Kirichenko, become first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine.

Up until 1953, no ethnic Ukrainians were at the head of the Communist Party of Ukraine

Ukrainianization also took place outside Ukraine, in the RSFSR. In areas with a compact Ukrainian population (Kuban, where the Ukrainian population in the 1920s generally prevailed, in particular, 90% of the Kuban Cossacks considered themselves Ukrainians; Rostov region, Stavropol region, Kursk and Voronezh region, some areas of the Far Eastern region, etc.) Ukrainian schools were opened, and Ukrainian periodicals were published.

For the time being, Stalin needed the support of the Ukrainian Communists, primarily in his fight against the Trotskyite-Zinovievite opposition. But as he cracked down on his opponents, Stalin began to roll back Ukrainianization.

Stalin halts Ukrainianization

On April 26, 1926, in a letter to Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine Lazar Kaganovich and other members of the Politburo of the CC CP(b)U, Stalin criticized the policy of Ukrainianization in Ukraine. He did so after his conversation with Alexander Shumsky, then People's Commissar of Education of Ukraine. The letter was in fact a directive and prescribed a slowdown in the rate of Ukrainianization, although it did not halt Ukrainianization as such. Stalin considered one of Shumsky's mistakes to be that «he confuses the Ukrainianization of our party and other apparatuses with the Ukrainianization of the proletariat. It is possible and necessary to Ukrainianize, at a certain pace, our party, state and other apparatuses serving the population. But the proletariat cannot be Ukrainianized from above. It is impossible to force the Russian working masses to abandon the Russian language and Russian culture and recognize Ukrainian as their culture and their language. This is contrary to the principle of the free development of nationalities.»

Lazar Kaganovich and Joseph Stalin
Lazar Kaganovich and Joseph Stalin

In this connection, the general secretary lashed out at the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylyovy: «Khvylyovy's demands for «immediate derussification of the proletariat» in Ukraine, his opinion that «Ukrainian poetry must escape as soon as possible from Russian literature, from its style,» his statement that 'we know the ideas of the proletariat even without Moscow's art, his passion for some messianic role of the Ukrainian «young» intelligentsia, his ridiculous and non-Marxist attempt to detach culture from politics, - all these and many other utterings of a Ukrainian communist now sound (cannot help sounding!) more than strange. While Western European proletarians and their communist parties are full of sympathy for «Moscow», this citadel of the international revolutionary movement and Leninism, while Western European proletarians look with admiration at the banner flying in Moscow, the Ukrainian communist Khvylyovy has nothing else to say in favor of «Moscow» but to urge the Ukrainian activists to flee from «Moscow» «as soon as possible». And this is called internationalism!»

Stalin also did not like that Shumsky demanded a high rate of Ukrainianization of party cadres - this threatened to weaken Moscow's influence on the highly placed Ukrainian officials: «He forgets that the number of purely Ukrainian Marxist cadres is not yet sufficient for the cause. He forgets that such cadres cannot be created artificially. He forgets that such cadres can grow only in the course of work, that it takes time...»

Alexander Shumsky (prison photo from the time of revolutionary struggle)
Alexander Shumsky (prison photo from the time of revolutionary struggle)

Stalin finished his letter on an optimistic note: «...It is impossible to portray things as if there were no Ukrainians in the governing bodies of the party and the Soviets. Skrypnik and Zatonsky, Chubar and Petrovsky, Grinko and Shumsky, are they not Ukrainians? Shumsky's mistake here is that, having the right perspective, he does not take the tempo into account. And tempo is the main thing now.

But this optimism did not deceive the letter's addressees. They clearly understood that the pace of Ukrainianization must be slowed down and that no attempt should be made to assimilate the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. And a sad fate awaited almost all of the Ukrainian political and cultural figures named in Shumsky's letter.

In 1927, after the defeat of the opposition, Shumsky was removed as Commissar of Education and exiled to Leningrad as rector of the F. Engels Leningrad Institute of National Economy. In 1933 he was arrested on trumped up charges of belonging to the mythical «Ukrainian military organization» and sentenced to 10 years in the Solovki camp. In 1935 Shumsky was exiled to Krasnoyarsk. In July 1946, he tried to commit suicide. After that, at the suggestion of Nikita Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich, then in charge of Ukraine, Stalin sanctioned the liquidation of Shumsky. He was told to return to Kyiv. On his way there, in Saratov, Alexander Yakovlevich was poisoned by MGB (Ministry of State Security) agents on September 18, 1946.

At the suggestion of Nikita Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin authorized the liquidation of Shumsky

A press campaign was conducted against Mykola Khvyloyvy in 1926-1928. He was forced to publicly repent. After his friend writer Mikhail Yalovoy was arrested on charges of belonging to the mythical «Ukrainian Military Organization,» Khvylyovy shot himself in his Kharkiv apartment on May 13, 1933.

Mykola Khvylyovy's suicide note
Mykola Khvylyovy's suicide note

Mykola Skrypnyk, who in 1927-1933 was Commissar of Education of Ukraine and in 1933 deputy chairman of the Sovnarkom of Ukraine and chairman of the State Planning Committee of Ukraine, committed suicide in Kharkiv on July 7, 1933 as a result of the campaign unleashed against him on charges of «distorting Leninism,» «committing nationalist errors» and «wrecking in the linguistics sphere» with a demand to publish a penitential letter.

Vlas Chubar, Chairman of the Sovnarkom of Ukraine in 1923-1934 and Deputy Chairman of the Sovnarkom of the USSR in 1934-1938, was arrested in July 1938 on charges of participation in anti-Soviet terrorist and subversive organization and espionage in favor of Germany and was shot on February 26, 1939.

Grigory Grinko, Commissar of Education of Ukraine in 1920-1922, then chairman of the State Planning Committee in Ukraine until 1926 and Commissar of Finance of the USSR in 1930-1937, was arrested on August 17, 1937 and shot on March 15, 1938 as one of the defendants in the trial of the Right-Trotskyist bloc.

Thus, all the major figures of Soviet Ukrainianization did not die their own deaths during Stalin's lifetime - they were driven to suicide by a campaign of harassment, poisoned, or executed.

All of the major figures of Soviet Ukrainianization were driven to suicide by a campaign of harassment, poisoned, or executed.


The process of de-Ukrainianization proceeded gradually and began with the RSFSR. According to the December 15, 1932 directive of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) and the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR, all Ukrainian schools in the RSFSR were transformed into Russian ones and teaching in Ukrainian was abolished. Also abolished was the use of the Ukrainian language in court proceedings. In fact, the authorities initiated the process of Russification of the Kuban Cossacks and non-resident Ukrainian population of Kuban, which ended after World War II.

The Ukrainianization of the army in Ukraine ended in July 1927, when the Sovnarkom of the USSR confirmed that the Red Army could manage its documentation in Russian throughout the USSR. In general, that year was a year of slowdown in Ukrainianization, when many of its most active supporters lost their positions or were subjected to public criticism. On May 24, 1928, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) pronounced inappropriate «such interpretation of the law on compulsory study of the Ukrainian language that would deny admission into the service to any persons who do not yet know the Ukrainian language.»

In August 1932 Stalin stated that hidden nationalists and foreign agents had overwhelmed Ukrainian party organizations, a statement that led to a purge of «nationalists» at the end of 1932. In 1933, the old norms of the Ukrainian language were drastically revised and brought closer to eastern Ukrainian dialects. Further purging of nationalists from all government and cultural bodies continued until the late 1930s. The beginning of the active campaign of de-Ukrainianization coincided with the beginning of forced collectivization and the Holodomor. The supporters of Ukrainianization lost their social base almost entirely, since the most cultured strata of the Ukrainian peasantry either perished from the famine or were deported outside Ukraine. Throughout the 1930's the number of hours of Russian language instruction in Ukrainian schools steadily increased. In 1938 the Russian language was taught from the 2nd grade in elementary schools and from the 3rd grade in junior high schools in all non-Russian-language schools.

After the end of World War II and the liberation of Ukraine from German occupation, the process of de-Ukrainianization continued, and in the 1970s and 1980s it led to a sharp decrease in the number of Ukrainian-language schools in eastern Ukraine. As a result, according to the data of the 1989 census, 32.8% of the Ukrainian population considered Russian their native language, and 64.7% Ukrainian; native speakers of the Russian language prevailed not only in Crimea, but also in the Odessa, Donetsk and Lugansk regions, while in the Zaporozhye region the speakers of Russian and Ukrainian were almost equally distributed. At the same time, in large cities, except for Eastern Galicia and Volyn, the spoken Russian language absolutely prevailed, and in Kyiv, as early as 1991, 54% of school students studied in Russian schools, and only 45% in Ukrainian.

Overall, Ukrainianization was a temporary concession by the Kremlin to the Ukrainian Communists for tactical purposes and was abandoned and then reversed as soon as Stalin crushed the opposition and consolidated his power. The attempt to resume Ukrainianization under Beria was quickly thwarted, and his attempt to make the union republics truly national was precisely one of the reasons for his fall, as it threatened the integrity of the Soviet empire. The process of de-Ukrainianization stretched over several generations and had not been completed by the time of the collapse of the USSR.

The statement by Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev on the need to combat «Ukrainianism» («deep-seated Ukrainianism, fueled by anti-Russian poison and all-consuming lies about its identity, is one big fake») suggests a campaign of de-Ukrainianization along the lines of the campaign which the USSR authorities had been conducting since the late 20s: the campaign required not only a complete occupation of all Ukrainian territory by Russian troops, but also the establishment of a totalitarian regime there.

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